Mike Pettine came to the Browns with a vision of establishing an identity: a tough-nosed, bruising squad that would seek to overpower its opponents. As a former defensive coordinator, many assumed it would be the Browns defense that would establish such a personality under Pettine’s guidance. Four games into the season, however, that hasn’t been the case. In fact, it has been the unit that was seen as a potential weakness headed into this year—the offensive line.
And they haven’t just been good, or even great. They currently are performing at a level that places them among the NFL’s elite. Maybe even the best.
Rewind to just one season ago, and the Browns ranked 23rd in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt, and also allowed the third-most sacks on the quarterback in the entire league. Browns quarterbacks could frequently be seen slowly getting up on their feet with their jerseys plastered with mud and grass stains after being slammed to the ground by unguarded defenders. The verdict amongst fans and NFL personnel alike was that no quarterback could succeed playing behind the “Swiss Cheese” offensive line of the Browns.
Flash-forward to this season, and things have drastically changed.
Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan has instilled a new zone-blocking scheme that seems to be paying huge dividends. Statistically speaking, through four games the offensive line is night and day from last year. They have only given up five sacks, which is good for third-best in the league. They’ve been keeping Brian Hoyer upright and giving him the time he needs to survey the field and find the open receiver. And that 23rd ranked rushing attack last year? It’s been replaced with the fourth-best attack this season, as the Browns running backs have been rumbling down the field for an average of 143 yards per game. The difference this year is that they actually have holes to run through, caused by the bullying of defenders by the offensive line.
Deeper statistics only back up the notion that Browns o-line may be the best in the biz.
According to Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com, the Browns have allowed on average 31 less quarterback pressures than the league’s median number (15 through five games as opposed to the median of 46). On top of that, only two starting QB’s have sustained fewer hits than Hoyer so far: Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos. Both of those QB’s are known to play behind elite offensive lines.
This isn’t just a fluke. These guys are the identity of the Cleveland Browns. Anchored by Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, and reinforced by the rookie Joel Bitonio (currently ranked as the fourth-best guard in the entire NFL) the Browns o-line isn’t just protecting their team from their opponents—they’re overwhelming them.
Even though the season is still young, these guys have been playing on superhero-like levels so far. Moving forward, the Browns finally have an identity they can hang their hats on.